To speak of an American peace movement in the years after 1939 is to look to a far more complicated effort to preserve the peace of Europe and the world than had been made in the years before. Americans interested in peace realized the need for much more organization and much more money. The number of peace groups proliferated beyond the imagination of workers during the 1920s and 1930s. A survey of peace groups in 1988 found that there were 500 with budgets of more than $30,000 annually, and 7,200 groups with budgets of less.
The programs to which the new and old peace groups turned were remarkably diverse. Most groups took interest in the United Nations, notably the surviving conservative groups of the interwar era, which easily changed their support from the League of Nations to the United Nations. During World War II the country concentrated on victory, but there was much interest in the Department of State's plans for a United Nations, which were well advanced by 1944, when the Dumbarton Oaks Conference met to draw up a draft of the United Nations Charter. Undersecretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., carefully encouraged the formation of a network of committees and organizations across the country that was to give advice on the structure of the new world organization. He provided for public representation at the San Francisco Conference (1945). The resultant charter and the constitutions of its many supporting organs showed that the people of the United States this time considered the maintenance of peace to be more than a political task, and that it comprised social, economic, and intellectual concerns.
In the immediate years after World War II, peace groups found an almost dizzying group of issues to focus upon, but principally their concern was the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union. This turned attention to the American and Soviet buildup in armaments, both conventional and nuclear.
After such foreign policy developments as the Truman Doctrine and support of Greece and Turkey against the Soviet Union; Soviet explosion of a nuclear test device in 1949; the Korean War; the Suez crisis of 1956, involving intervention in Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel; and continuing troubles in the Middle East, notably American occupation of Lebanon in 1958, there came the intervention in Vietnam, which for a dozen years in the 1960s and early 1970s, until withdrawal in 1975, brought a coalition of American peace groups in strident opposition.
When the issue of the Vietnam War arose, could it be said that the many youthful dissenters represented a revival of the older peace movements, which were generally against war rather than advocating special causes? Some of the anti-war protesters generalized their feelings about Vietnam to include all wars. In the 1960s young people everywhere, not merely in the United States, found war distasteful. It might have appeared that they were reconstituting the world peace movement of the interwar years. Or perhaps they were harking back to the views of Tolstoy and other philosophical pacifists at the end of the nineteenth century. Yet in the United States the antiwar protesters focused on involvement of the country in Vietnam. Their special cause set them apart from older peace movements. Their tactics also were markedly different; they took inspiration from the Indian protest movement of Mohandas K. Gandhi, a generation and more earlier, against British imperialism. Gandhi's movement had been a means of registering dissent and forcing change. In the United States the civil rights protesters in the South were employing civil disobedience, with marked success. The Vietnam protesters similarly employed it to persuade the American public to stop supporting the Vietnam War.
Americans interested in peace after World War II were necessarily attracted to the problems of nuclear disarmament, but here the technicalities proved so complex that no single assemblage, such as another Washington Naval Conference, and certainly no campaign by private individuals, could hope to resolve them. The contentions of the 1920s over gun calibers and tonnage and the thickness of armor plate now appeared to represent an antediluvian age. In the years after 1945 much initiative passed to the federal government, which sponsored nuclear disarmament programs and organized the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Private organizations assisted in its work. The atomic physicists organized themselves through the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and through the Federation of Atomic Scientists.
Such efforts tended to attach to aspects of nuclear disarmament, and in the early years after World War II peace groups in America concentrated on an end to nuclear testing, once the dangers of tests became evident. The limited test ban of 1963 appeared to be the initial result—although it might be argued that for the nuclear powers testing by that time no longer was of advantage. Another factor, seldom mentioned, in passage of the test ban treaty through the U.S. Senate was an arrangement for Republican support in exchange for a promise by President Lyndon B. Johnson not to undertake an investigation of the income tax returns of President Dwight Eisenhower's chief of staff, Sherman Adams—a deal negotiated by former president Eisenhower.
In the early 1980s the groups in the United States concentrated on limitation of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe, and the success of this endeavor raised a question as to what tactics—those of the movement in America and Europe, or the competitive rearmament sponsored by the Ronald Reagan administration vis-àvis the Soviet Union—were successful. The administration sponsored the B-1 bomber, the MX missile system, and the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"). The last sought a defense against Soviet missiles by an antiballistic missile system. The movement cited the enormous cost of competition over many years, and it was easy to show all the alternatives, peaceful alternatives, available for the same price: construction of schools, of roads and dams, of rail lines between cities, of new or improved airports; better health care; housing for the poor. Groups cited the risk of destruction of cities and national infrastructures, not to mention the millions of people who would die in a nuclear war.
The attack against the nuclear programs of the Reagan era led to the nuclear freeze campaign, an issue that appeared on ballots in many states during the November 1982 elections, and 11.5 million people, 60 percent of those voting on the freeze issue, voted in favor. State legislatures, city councils, and national labor unions declared themselves in favor of a freeze on testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons. All this resulted in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with the Soviet Union in 1987. Not long afterward the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it a considerable part of the world's nuclear competition, although the remaining nuclear powers constituted a considerable threat to peace and a very real complexity in negotiating further arms cuts.
Continuing concerns meanwhile were arising over threats to peace of a conventional sort, including American actions in scattered places around the world. Each threat or action gathered its groups in opposition. Here one speaks of interventions in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and Somalia (1992), the last two occurring during the George H. W. Bush administration. The Reagan administration's support of the contras in Nicaragua led to clashes with peace groups opposing sponsorship of right-wing partisans against a left-wing government.
In 1990 another opportunity arose for protesting intervention, again in the Middle East, where the U.S. government and the United Nations sought to press the regime of the dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, whose troops had invaded and occupied the neighboring country of Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia. The immediate concern of the movement during the time of negotiation, prior to the UN military attack, Desert Storm, was to give sanctions time to work rather than rushing to war. Some American groups supporting the need for time believed that it was also an opportunity to spread their message and recruit new members. Most groups simply desired more time than President Bush and his increasingly supportive UN allies were willing to offer.
The older generation of peace movement supporters, one should remark, was not altogether pleased with the diffuse concerns of the younger generation, and beheld weakness rather than strength in the much larger numbers of American groups and their far larger finances. Their criticisms perhaps had a point, and are worth mentioning. The historian Arthur Ekirch, who had been a conscientious objector during World War II, was disgusted with the postwar peace workers. He wrote of the factionalism, self-examination, and debate over alternatives after 1945. He thought that the only purpose of a peace movement was opposition to militarism and war.
And what to say of this criticism? Of the factionalism there could be no question, for each of the bewildering number of American groups, numbering into the thousands, had its purpose. A Canadian group in the 1970s began publication of a periodical—a digest of peace books, articles, and conference papers—on the principle that chemists and other scientists possessed such digests, and so should the peace movement. The span of the books, articles, and papers was almost unlimited, displaying the way in which the post–World War II groups had edged into subjects never hitherto deemed of much, if any, interest to a peace movement. One conference participant advocated tourism, because seeing other cultures would produce tolerance, and therefore understanding, and maybe peace. The confusion of purposes, the welter of what Ekirch described as factionalism, was evident in the categories of the digest's editors, who changed their categories every few years, to the confusion of readers.
In the factionalism of the post-1945 movement it was evident that only two general distinctions, which might be described as organizing principles, marked the new movement. The authors of the survey of peace groups in 1988 wrote that pacifist groups tended to lead the entire movement; in times of slumps of interest in peace, they tended to stay together and offer new ideas. Pacifist groups served as "halfway houses" to ensure the movement's survival during the doldrums. They were especially persistent during troubling experiences, as when in Iran they sought to "do peace" but found the task difficult in the midst of violence. Their task of testimony was also difficult. How could they be heard when the United Nations engaged in peacekeeping, and its proposals and programs dominated public attention?
According to the analysts of the movement, the nonpacifist groups sought to change foreign policy by working within the political system. In the United States this entailed proposing legislation to halt development of particular weapons or generally cut spending for programs, creating support for such efforts through lobbying, and making positions known during elections.
Another point made in the survey, somewhat countering the accusation of factionalism, was that constituents of groups were not themselves divided into a few factions: women, students, and professionals. Constituents were more diverse than expected, among both pacifist and nonpacifist groups. With the exception of religious persons, the often cited constituent groupings were small proportions of any of the peace groups. Students were found in small-budget groups and professionals in nonpacifist groups, but differences otherwise were not large.
Self-examination also was a characteristic of the post–World War II American groups. Interviewers of "persistent peace activists" developed a theory of sustained commitment that included creating an activist identity, integrating peace work into everyday life, building beliefs that sustain activism, bonding with a peace group, and managing burnout. Ekirch's third criticism, that the American peace advocates were fond of debate, was undeniable, as all readers of the Peace Research Abstracts could see.
But in retrospect one might conclude—despite present-day factionalism and self-examination and debate over issues, and the failure of peace movements of the past—that groups everywhere have done much good. In the United States they have had public support based on the nation's history. The resort to colonies in the New World was in part to escape the incessant wars of Europe, including enforced military service. Through experience involving the exploitation of a great new continent, Americans became hopeful people, and the age-old hope of peace naturally appealed to them. The very success of the American experiment in democracy raised the possibility of changing the ways of other peoples. E pluribus unum has succeeded beyond all expectation in the United States, and Americans have expected this motto to have meaning for Europe and the world.
Another factor has entered into support for the peace movement in the United States that was not present in earlier years. The American people have come to realize that the bounties of geography and the rivalries of other nations have given their country protection for many decades longer than they could have expected, and it is time now for them to take part in the organization of world order. Jules Jusserand, France's ambassador to the United States (1902–1920), was fond of saying that America was bordered on north and south by weak nations, and on east and west by nothing but fish. During the American Revolution, and throughout the nineteenth century, the United States benefited from what President Washington described as the ordinary combinations and collisions of the European powers. The noted twentieth-century historian of American foreign relations, Samuel Flagg Bemis, was accustomed to write regarding this era that "Europe's distress was America's advantage." C. Vann Woodward aptly labeled it a time of "free security." Beginning with World War I, this remarkable period was no more. After World War II most Americans realized that fact. When the nuclear age opened, the problems of world peace became so omnipresent, so persistent, that they no longer were possible to ignore.